The cinematic adaptation of a Martin Amis novel juxtaposes mundane everyday life with the horror of Auschwitz using thermal vision and audio, among other narrative devices, reports Adrian Pennington.
The bureaucratic designation “zone of interest” [interessengebiet in German] was used by the Nazi SS to describe the 40 km2 area immediately surrounding the Auschwitz concentration camp on the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland. Used by the late Martin Amis for the title of his 2014 novel and retained by writer-director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) for his long-gestating cinematic adaptation, The Zone of Interest maps the geographical and psychic terrain of the Auschwitz administrators home and work lives with chilling precision.
“We wanted the camera to be like an eye,” explained Lucas Żal, the two time Polish Academy Award nominee (for Ida and Cold War) who shot Glazer’s film.
In the novel, Amis had based the villainous character of Paul Doll — a camp commandant stationed at a fictional version of Auschwitz — on Rudolf Höss, the long-serving Nazi officer widely acknowledged as one of the architects of mass extermination. (He was even credited with pioneering the use of Zyklon B gas.)
Staggeringly, the Höss family home shared its garden wall with the death camp. It was this fact that led Glazer to the idea of integrating biographical reality into the screenplay.
“The phrase I kept using was ‘Big Brother in the Nazi house,’” the 58-year-old filmmakers said, in the production’s notes. “We couldn’t do that, of course, but it was more like the feeling of ‘let’s watch people in their day to day lives.’ I wanted to capture the contrast between somebody pouring a cup of coffee in their kitchen and somebody being murdered on the other side of the wall, the co-existence of those two extremes.”
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To film what is among the sensitive of all subjects, Glazer challenged his crafts team to be as objective as possible. To Żal this meant avoiding manipulating the audience in terms of composition and framing or close-ups or using extraneous lighting while much of the acting would be improvised rather than directed.
They meticulously built a replica of the Höss villa and garden, only yards from where the actual home remains, and within the former zone of interest. For the building interiors they rigged a network of ten partially hidden Sony Venice cameras and captured multiple sequences over long takes.
Some scenes are improvised, others are carefully scripted, and in both cases the filmmakers knew they could always do another take, but that they couldn’t just walk in and move a prop or change lighting since this would destroy continuity.
For the majority of the production, Glazer and Żal were situated in a separate concrete bunker with a team of focus pullers working the cameras from the building’s basement, resulting in a uniquely disembodied form of authorship.
“The most important thing was not to aestheticise. You’re not allowed to do that,” said Żal who worked almost entirely with natural or diegetic light sources. “Even in the colour correction, we graded it to be flat. We tried not to manipulate the image.”
In order to achieve the right detached quality for the cinematography he experimented with wide lenses and geometrically centered frames, aiming to removing anything like beauty from the equation.
The concept, Żal told the American Society of Cinematographers, is to witness events in the most unadorned way and to try and avoid fetishising or glamorising the topic.
“There was a core idea that all the horror was going to be beyond the frame and behind the wall,” Żal said.
Early in the German-language film, Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) is hosting her mother’s first visit to the pristine two-story stucco villa she shares with Rudolf and their children. When asked if the maids in the house are Jews, she gestures towards the ivy-covered partition separating her burgeoning garden from the massive structure on the other side.
“The Jews are over the other side of the wall,” she said brightly.
Out of sight, out of mind. As The Zone of Interest goes on, it keeps accruing subtle, almost ambient visual and aural signifiers of an ongoing, mechanized genocide occurring just beyond our view: the Höss’ lavishly subsidised tenancy juxtaposes a bucolic Aryan fantasy with the nightmarish realities on which it has (literally) been built.
Behind the Scenes: The Zone of Interest - Night vision
After a scene in which Rudolph reads Hansel & Gretel to his children, the film cuts to a dramatic shift in imagery and a sequence of a young girl acting in secret in the dead of night. At first it looks like a continuation of the Hansel & Gretel story, with the girl leaving a trail of apples in the mud. In keeping with the rest of the film it needed to be shot at night and without lights – not even a concession for moonlight.
Żal made a number of camera tests eventually settling on a thermal photography camera built for military surveillance and industrial inspection. The FLIR records temperature not light and as Żal played around with it he realised “every pixel is information about temperature so you can interpret this as you want” using high contrast and grayscale.
It meant that the figure of the girl would appear as a bright, hallucinatory white and other items would also exhibit a heat signature including apples, spades, and even ash.
“You are just operating with heat,” he said. “Different objects have a different heat temperature and that’s how you build your image.”
In post they employed AI to reinforce the resolution of the image by upscaling it from 1K to 4K, approximating as best they could the 6K of the Venice cameras.
The girl is based on real events recounted to Glazer a few years ago by an elderly lady (before she passed away) who as a young girl had left food surreptitiously in the open mines near Auschwitz for the prisoners.
Behind the Scenes: The Zone of Interest - The sound of industrial scale murder
The film opens with three minutes of a complete black screen with Mica Levi’s sinister sombre score for company. Then we hear bird song and the picture opens to reveal a mundane family picnic by a river. Sound designer Johnnie Burn said it’s a way of tuning the audience’s ears before they tune their eyes to what they’re about to witness.
Sound designer Johnnie Burn was tasked with finding the routine sound of murder. He compiled a 600-page research document and spent the year before filming began and into post-production building the sound library with his team. According to AFrame, he recorded the industrial rumble of textile workshops and incinerators, boots marching on gravel, period-accurate gunfire, and death itself.
Burn said, “Anything sensationalised in the sound wouldn’t work, so understanding the difference between someone acting pain and actually being in pain at point of death, that’s to do with literally the cadence of the way people scream.”
Behind the Scenes: The Zone of Interest - On location in Auschwitz
For three years, Glazer and his team poured through resources in the Auschwitz and Birkenau State Museum and Memorial. They went through all the ‘black books,’ the thousands and thousands of testimonies of victims and survivors looking for anything to do with the Höss’.
Crucial were photographs of the Höss’ homestead, including a shot of Hedwig and her children standing together beside a wooden slide.
Glazer initially wanted to shoot in the 80-year-old remnants of the Höss home. A complicating factor was Auschwitz’s status as a UNESCO world heritage site — which prohibits construction or activity – even noise - within a 500-metre exclusion zone.
Instead, they chose a derelict building 200 yards from the real Höss home and garden, at the edge of an overgrown field adjacent to Auschwitz. This was rebuilt by production designer Chris Oddy according to old photographs and blueprints. This included a recreation of the garden which Oddy began planting in early April, so that everything flowered in time for the shoot in summer 2021.
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